General Writing Guidelines
for Academic Essays
I. Begin with MLA Heading Format. Include the following information at the top left or top right of the first page:
Essay Title (Centered)
- Reread. Go back through the work(s) you have chosen, taking careful notes and marking any relevant quotations. Underlining and marginal notes constitute a dialogue between you and the text and will help focus your thoughts later.
- Brainstorm. After glancing back over your notes, sit down and write without stopping for five minutes. Allow your brain to run wild and free associate. Although you may eventually discard much of this early writing, a few provocative ideas will emerge.
- Choose a topic and begin to Formulate your thesis. Your thesis determines your reader’s attitude toward your paper. Make sure it is (1) detailed, (2) specific, (3) unified, and (4) interesting. In other words, your thesis should be a debatable, supportable and specific claim that demonstrates your insights into the topic. In other words, it should be a claim that a reasonable reader could potentially disagree with. Many writers write themselves into their thesis, and find it appears in the conclusion instead of the introduction. After you finish writing the paper, revise your claim to ensure that it still makes sense. See the Writing Program's Overview of an Argument for a refresher.
- Interpret or Analyze, don’t just give an observation or an opinion. An interpretive or argumentative thesis takes a strong stance on the meaning of a particular text, issue, or concept. A good thesis doesn’t just announce a topic or state the obvious but works harder in order to tell the reader what kind of intellectual response he or she should have to the text. Remember: A strong argument will very likely have strong counter-arguments, so try to anticipate those counter arguments and use them to help clarify your ideas and define your own position.
2. Arrangement of Argument
- Organize logically. As you develop your ideas, arrange them in a logical fashion and provide appropriate links between them. Each paragraph should have a controlling idea or topic sentence to keep it (and your essay) focused. The topic sentence tells your reader what each paragraph is about.
- Introductions are often the most difficult to write. It might help to think of your opening paragraph as the place to define the terms and parameters of your argument and to give your reader the background information necessary to your argument. Be as specific as possible, avoiding broad, vague claims, such as “Since the dawn of time, mankind has x, y or z” or “All we need is love.”
- Make strong transitions. Present your written ideas in a logical, continuous order. Where necessary, indicate the relationship between different parts of your essay with transitional signals (e.g., “but,” “then,” “however,” “nonetheless”). Guard against transitions that amount to nothing more than additions (“and,” “Also,” “in addition”); these indicate that the paper is merely a list--a series of points rather than an essay.
- Prove your claims. All general statements should be supported with evidence, whether passages or details from the text or, in the case of a personal narrative, from your own experience. To persuade your reader, you need to provide citations from the text or detailed descriptions that back up your assertions. Use the MLA Guidelines when including a quotation. (There are a number of online guides to MLA format. Try this one at Purdue or this from the University of Illinois.)
- Provide specific analysis. Link your claims with your quotations by providing an explanation. The longer the quotation, the more explanation it demands. Close textual analysis is the backbone of a successful English paper. Carefully explain how you interpret each quote or descriptive detail and its relationship to your claim.
- Don’t expect your reader to be able to read your mind—though you think the passage clearly demonstrates your claim that Poe views science and poetry as embattled foes, your reader may focus instead on the lulling rhyme scheme. Explain to your reader how to interpret the passage and why. In short, when including a quote from another source, don’t just drop it in the paragraph with no support. Instead, surround it with your own words and explain to your reader why it is relevant.
- Acknowledge counterarguments. Enhance your credibility by acknowledging and responding to potential reader objections. Be particularly aware of textual evidence that complicates or contradicts your argument. Ignoring counterarguments does not strengthen your writing, acknowledging and refuting them does.
- Conclude. While your introduction announces your claims, your last paragraph resolves them. Conclude your essay by synthesizing your argument rather than merely summarizing it. Use your conclusion to suggest the further implications of your argument or the larger issues it raises.
3. Other items to consider
- Style. Correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar determine the overall reception of the paper. Technical errors can distract from and even undermine the strength of your ideas. Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! Use a dictionary when in doubt, and always read your work through to catch typographical or other minor errors. Spellcheck can be helpful, but it can also provide a false sense of accuracy. Reading your own words out loud often helps you catch what your eyes might miss.
- Be specific. Instead of talking about “several different matters” or “various ways,” say what you’re referring to.
- Verb Tense. Check to make sure you are consistent in your use of present or past tense. Note: When writing about literature, use the present tense, unless you are referring to historical events or items in a chronology. (e.g., Hawthorne suggests or Benito claims)
- Cite All Outside Sources: If you do derive any ideas from other reading or discussion, be sure to credit the source (whether a book or a person). Failure to do so is a form of plagiarism.
- Seek help if you have questions. Use my office hours or make an appointment. Please also consult the Writing Center or a grammar/style handbook (the Bedford Handbook or MLA Handbook are two useful references, but there are many others available on-line or at the Writing Center ).